Ricardo Gutiérrez Pays Homage To Home
Lucy Gellman / September 21st, 2021
Arts Council Greater New Haven
The eye looks straight out at the viewer, open and unblinking as gold and teal paint spread over the frame. On one side, a hummingbird lifts her blue-green wings and extends a thin, forked tongue. On the other, an Anolis dracula lizard scampers onto a clump of rocks. His scales glow an iridescent green. In the canvases around him, red-orange hibiscus flowers burst into bloom.
For artist Ricardo Gutiérrez, it feels like home.
Gutiérrez is a painter and photographer who is working to grow his footprint across New Haven, while using vignettes from his native Colombia as his backdrop. After presenting Urabá: The Promised Land last weekend in North Haven, he is hoping to bring his work to venues in New Haven, as well as New York and internationally. He currently practices out of a home studio in New Haven’s Edgewood neighborhood.
«When I’m painting, I’m meditating,” he said Friday, surrounded by his work in a gallery that sits above a meat market on Middletown Avenue. “It feels good doing that. I’m so proud to be Colombian. I’m so proud to show my culture to the world.»
His recent work has been over two decades in the making. Gutiérrez grew up in Colombia, bouncing between the northern, forested Urabá region and the city of Medellín, where he studied at the Fundación Universitaria Bellas Artes. Even as a kid, he said, he knew something was different in the way he saw the world around him. While other children ran around and played with toy cars, he spent time running his hands along rocks and tree bark, feeling their weight and texture in his hands. He slipped out into nature as often as he could.
«I realized that I was an artist,» he said. “I wanted to build things.”
While growing that dream at home—he credits his dad, who is also a painter—he also built a career as a designer that would bring him to the United States. In 2016, Gutiérrez moved to New Jersey, then to New Haven, for a job with a design firm. He fell in love with the Elm City for its multiculturalism, and stayed even as he left one job and started his own design business. Most recently, he worked with artist Anthony Barroso on a vaccination campaign in Fair Haven.
His recent works are a testament to the place that raised him. Gutiérrez, who lives at the intersection of Indigenous, Black and European, said he’s always wanted to pay homage to Urabá, including plants and animals that are now at great risk from climate change and deforestation. He calls many of his compositions molas, after the ornate, bright and tightly woven textiles for which the Indigenous Gunadule people along the Gulf of Urabá are known.
The works are instantly eye-catching, giving the viewer a slice of Colombia through his eyes. In his Mola caballo, white patterned horse floats in profile, it is as if Gutiérrez has enlarged a wooden chess piece and flattened it out in the center of his canvas. Around it, colors swirl: blue and gold surrounded with white, then unbroken black and bands of red. The horse’s jawline is tucked into his neck, the suggestion of a bridle fixed to his mouth.
In other works, there are equal parts nostalgia and intrigue. A lone, ripe plantain sails through the air, wrapped in greens and pinks and no longer bound by gravity. A figure stares longingly into the distance, her eyes fixed on something beyond the frame. A monkey scales a branch, and stops to look out at the viewer with big, curious eyes.
With his works, Gutiérrez manages to balance a sense of whimsy with a deep reverence for the plant, animal and human life he is depicting. He celebrates the Palenqueras of Cartagena and lets his paintbrush take flight with the dozens of birds and butterflies that spring from its tip. In a display of a toucan and a rooster installed side by side last Friday night, the birds nearly came off the wall, so full of life that it seemed they might start bickering at any moment.
On several of his molas, his brushstrokes bloom in detailed, uninterrupted and labyrinthine patterns, as if he is unraveling thread instead of acrylic paint. His Indígena Marrón, the star of last weekend’s show, asks viewers to study one face split across two canvases, its eyes gleaming from both a white cheek and a brown one.
In his Mola Mariposa, a larger-than-life butterfly stands frozen in place on a twig, her spindly legs absorbing the full weight of her body. Her antennae stretch out in front of her, probing the air. A yellow background and textured yellow frame make her pop, her wings a mosaic of color. His signature, as in so many of the works, is hidden in one of the insect’s eyespots.
Gutiérrez said he hopes that the work will create conversation around the Colombia that he knows and loves, rather than the one that is often depicted in the mainstream media. Because of Covid-19, the artist hasn’t been able to return for years, and his family was unable to travel for the show.
In some of his most joyful compositions, he captures what he misses. Flowers bloom in pinks and oranges, nearly fragrant from their canvases. Animals hop and slither from their frames. If the viewer comes up close enough, they can almost hear a whispered hello.
«When people ask me about Colombia, they always say ‘Oh, cocaine,'» he said. «No. Colombia is not cocaine. Colombia is more than that. Colombia is multicultural. Colombia is flavor. Even though we were in a dangerous place, people are still happy there. And we try to work every day to make a good country.»